Sat near the front of a packed auditorium in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the women behind me are booing, jeering and, on occasion, heckling.
Most of their taunts were directed at Martin Daubney, former editor of lads’ mag Loaded, who was talking part in a discussion on porn, along with my good friend Chitra Nagarajan (of Black Feminists) and anti-porn activist and academic Julia Long. Chairing the controversial debate was Helena Kennedy QC.
One of the comments that promoted booing in the audience was Daubney’s assertion, ’All the women that appeared in all the men’s mag were paid well, they wanted to do it. Our big cover girls got paid more than I did. These weren’t victims.’ Of course, statements like this are guaranteed to wind up some feminists if they are among those ideologically opposed to porn.
Despite beginning with that justification of Loaded – and arguing that lad’s mags were never porn, Daubney went on to admit that over the years they have become more porn-like. A magazine today would be too hardcore to sell on the ‘middle shelf’ five years ago.
And then Daubney proceeded to explain how his views changed once he had a daughter. When he was asked if he’d be happy for his own daughter to appear in the pages of his magazine, he admitted: ’I felt duty bound to say “yeah, yeah”, but I was lying. When I became a father I looked differently at this magazine sector.’
He decided to leave men’s magazines three years ago, as a direct result, he says.
Perhaps this isn’t a wholehearted transformation – Daubney now writes for The Sun and the Daily Mail, and he spoke quite dismissively particularly in response to one question about banning Page 3, which he called a ‘side issue’. (Incidentally, Page 3 is nowhere near the top of my agenda for change, so I can’t entirely disagree, but his manner was a tad rude.)
Daubney seemed to savour the booing and heckling, but some of the audience members who also had their contributions jeered at as well, might have not enjoyed the experience as much. Even though Kennedy told us that in years passed she’s chaired debates on porn that have seemed to be on the edge of actual violence, I thought this was dispiriting.
As a counterpoint, however, it’s also interesting to look at what happened when Chitra spoke. Based on an informal survey of members of Black Feminists, she gave some insights into why black women are not generally even involved in or invited to these debates. She talked about the racism that crops up in porn; listing common tropes and stereotypes, and calling for a more nuanced discussion. I’m not going to even attempt to summarise her many points – hopefully her speech will go on the Black Feminists’ blog soon.
Her points were well made – but then systematically ignored by the other speakers and the audience. Which is a shame because in all the many debates on porn I’ve heard, I think this is the first to address these topics. Although I am admittedly biased, I have to say I found hers the most interesting contribution from the panel, as it provided some nuance. No-one even really responded to or engaged with her points.
She was barely called upon to participate in the discussion, which rotated through some well-trodden arguments: should porn be banned, or, on the other hand, can porn be feminist. Is porn always abusive.
The temptation seems to be to rehearse the same arguments again and again. People take sides, reach for their talking points (in the case of Daubney, even when he seemed no longer to fully believe them himself!), and dismiss the views of the ‘opposition’. As those who were in the room experienced, often this dismissal can be very loud indeed.
There were some genuine exceptions in the audience: one woman entertainingly spoke about her nostalgia for the porn of the 1970s and 1980s, with its pubic hair; she’s tried anal sex a couple of times, she informed us, but didn’t like it much. Another woman, who works at a sexual health clinic, spoke about the affect on teenage boys who become desensitised to porn to the point of experiencing erectile dysfunction at only 16. One woman spoke about her experiences making feminist porn. About the effect of porn on young people’s ability to function in relationships. One mother of a teenage girl noted that, yes, teenage boys today have access to a lot of internet porn and it’s much more hardcore than before. But in other respects, those teenage boys seemed more sensitive and to like women more than teenage boys did when she was young.
Can we learn to listen to each other more, and talk less? What room have we left for people changing their mind. For dialogue? For a more nuanced conversation?
I think the level of heckling is actually linked to Chitra’s unsuccessful attempt to move the conversation on.
We need to allow for a genuine dialogue. Dialogue doesn’t involve talking over each other. But it should allow us to ask some different, perhaps more nuanced questions. Or we will be stuck forever in this loop.
Listen to Pornography: A Women Of The World Festival debate: